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Breast cancer risk in older women

by Sue Lanza

With breast cancer listed as the second most common cause of death in all women, older women appear to have a lower survival rate than their younger counterparts. Learn more about the reasons for this phenomenon and how you can advocate for your own care.

Breast Cancer in Older Women

Research shows that women between age sixty-five and eighty are at greater risk of developing breast cancer. In fact, studies illustrate that over half of all breast cancers occur in this senior age group. Sadly, at least half of all the women sixty years of age or older who develop breast cancer die of the disease. The pattern that researchers see is that older women tend to acquire more aggressive forms of breast cancer that are harder to fight.

The breast cancer risk factors for older women can partially explain these bleak statistics. Increased age is the number one situation that places post-menopausal women at risk. Surprisingly, family history is another key influence on whether a person develops the disease. The amount of estrogen that you may have been exposed to during your life so far plays a role, as well with the focus on items such as when menstrual periods began and ended, the number and timing of pregnancies and if hormone replacement therapy was part of a menopausal treatment. Two other items that are considered in evaluating the risk in developing breast cancer are alcohol usage and previous contact with radiation.

So with age being the predominant cause for acquiring breast cancer in seniors, what are the barriers you or your counterparts face in getting the proper screening and treatment if needed? In general, breast cancer care does not seem appropriately focused on the older, higher risk client, based on these observations by researchers:

  • Breast cancer that is discovered is usually found by the presence of a large tumor versus detection by a mammogram or other screening technique.
  • Older women may be asked less of the risk factor questions and their medical records overall may contain little information to determine their risk.
  • Some health care clinicians fail to even offer senior women treatment options such as chemotherapy or radiation as they might to a younger client.
  • Senior women are more likely to have chronic medical conditions or co-morbidities that may take away the focus from breast evaluation.
  • Like other disease research efforts, the older woman is not properly represented in breast cancer trials so information obtained is often slanted to the under age sixty age group.

Managing Your Breast Health

When you note the potential risk aspects for breast cancer and the lack of suitable focus by the health care industry, you may be thinking that the odds are stacked against you in getting appropriate care. You are still the greatest advocate for your own health so take charge of your breast health by trying the following:

  • Be sure to have all three types of breast examinations conducted frequently: self-exam, clinical exam and mammogram. Do the self-exam at least weekly to look for changes in the breast size or any lumps. Ask for a clinical exam by your health care professional whenever you have an office visit or at least yearly during your routine physical examination. Request or demand a yearly mammogram screening, which is still the best way to detect problems.
  • Don't let other medical factors or your own age phobia deter you from discussing your breast health with your physician. One piece of ammunition to remember in these discussions is that the American Geriatrics Society recommends regular mammogram screenings for women up to age eighty-five! Get the screening you are entitled to and know that most insurance companies will pay for annual mammogram screenings. For those with limited insurance coverage, there is even a program called National Breast and Cervical Cancer Early Detection Program (NBCCEDP) that provides low or no cost mammogram screenings.

If breast cancer is detected, there are a number of treatment options available including radiation, chemotherapy, hormonal interventions and surgery. Some can be used alone or in combination with each other, depending on your particular needs. Information is power when considering your own breast health. Be an advocate for yourself when it comes to breast cancer awareness.